Opinion : What might have been…

Hyundai Reunion

Well, maybe not… But the announcement that Hyundai had recreated its 1974 Pony Coupe Concept and displayed it during the inaugural Hyundai Reunion held at the historic Villa Pliniana in Lake Como, Italy, was a poignant reminder of the Designers and Engineers who set the Korean company on the road to success it enjoys today.

Taking centre stage at the glitzy launch of the 1974 Pony Coupe Concept alongside Euisun Chung, Executive Chair of Hyundai Motor Group, was Giorgetto Giugiaro (above). He styled this concept as well as the original Pony four-door fastback saloon – and, as is typical of Ital Design’s vehicles of the time, it was neat, tidy, good looking and had significant international appeal.

Euisun Chung said: ‘Despite the poor industrial environment in the 1970s, my grandfather and Hyundai’s Founding Chairman Ju-young Chung poured his heart and soul into rebuilding Korea’s economy and improving the lives of its people after the devastating Korean War.’

He added: ‘I express my sincere gratitude to everyone from both Italy and Korea who played a critical role in the success of Pony.’

The original 1974 Hyundai Pony Coupe Concept
The original 1974 Hyundai Pony Coupe Concept

Italy and Korea? As much as Giugiaro’s role in the creation and expansion of Hyundai was significant – Ital Design also penned the second-generation Pony and Stellar, both good-looking cars – the United Kingdom played a far more influential part in the Hyundai story. Unfortunately, in the coverage of the event, this went unmentioned.

We’ve told the story of ex-Standard-Triumph, Leyland Motors and British Leyland Motor Corporation executive George Turnbull and his instrumental part in the creation of Hyundai as an independent car manufacturer many times, but it’s definitely worth repeating given that Hyundai Motor (UK) Limited’s Press Release describes Hyundai Reunion as ‘a heritage brand platform that reflects on Hyundai Motor’s past and its future direction’ – especially as the omission of any reference to George Turnbull and his colleagues’ roles might be interpreted by some as potential revisionism.

By way of a brief reminder, as a high-up in British Leyland following the 1968 merger, Turnbull was tasked with making Austin-Morris profitable. On the way to doing that, he created a team that masterminded the development and launch of the Morris Marina. By 1972, the direction he had taken at Austin-Morris was enough to get it out of the red.

George Turnbull speaks to BBC's Panorama about how he set-up Hyundai's manufacturing operation.
George Turnbull speaks to BBC’s Panorama about how he set-up Hyundai’s manufacturing operation

That wasn’t enough, though. He missed out becoming Donald Stokes’ deputy in charge of British Leyland, which went to John Barber instead. As a consequence Turnbull quit the firm at the end of 1973 and, in short order, he had been headhunted by Hyundai Motor Company on a three-year contract to establish a new car-manufacturing facility there.

His task was to get the Pony into production within two years. The Pony’s styling was signed off in March 1974 and, by May 1976, it was on sale in the Republic of Korea. A remarkable achievement – beating the Marina’s gestation by a couple of months, and without the benefit of a huge parts bin behind him.

In setting up the Pony’s production at a greenfield site in Korea, he went to what he knew. So he hired a team which included Designer Kenneth Barnett, Engineers John Simpson and Edward Chapman, ex-BRM man John Crosthwaite as Chassis Engineer and Peter Slater as Chief Development Engineer to develop the Pony at pace, and then bought British body presses funded by money borrowed from British banks.

Oh, and as for the Pony’s styling, it was Turnbull who hired Giugiaro to deliver a car perfect for export markets.

Hyundai Pony in production form, as styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro...
Hyundai Pony in production form, as styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro…

However, all of this does make one wonder – with all the navel-gazing about the Austin Allegro, could a Turnbull-run Austin-Morris have ‘done a Hyundai’, and created something new and exciting for British Leyland in the 1970s?

Yes, there were battles to fight, not least the sprawling legacy production sites, union controls, the UK economy of the early 1970s, but could a tightly, George Turnbull-managed Austin-Morris selling a range of reliable vehicles with more international Italian-penned styling have made it?

Turnbull’s story still proves one thing: British design, engineering and management know-how can achieve greatness.

Hyundai Ioniq 5
Hyundai Ioniq 5: Korea is now at the very vanguard of the automotive industry, and its foundation stones were laid in Britain 50 years ago
Keith Adams


  1. Well yes, up to a point – the actual production Hyundai Pony was very much different when it finally appeared in Europe, it was a rather crude rear-wheel drive design that was no way comparable to European or Japanese cars. It wasn’t British mechanicals that powered the Pony either the engine was supplied by Mitsubishi and the Japanese company cemented it’s relations with Hyundai building Mitsubishi vehicles in Korea an arrangement that continued until the early 2000’s. It took a long time for Hyundai to make any headway in Europe early offerings competed in the budget market sector against FSO, Lada & Skoda and it took well over thirty years for their cars to be competitive in European markets. Recently, I watched the !970’s Money Programme on George Turnbull and the early years of the company, it gave Mr Turnbull an audience to say what he’d achieved but the fact that South Korea was at the time a military dictatorship, the workers were unable to organize and the sale of foreign cars in the South Korean was prevented by high import duties and trade barriers.

  2. Who is George Turnball ( sic) ? If you can’t get his name right, how much of the rest of what you opine is worth reading ?

      • Clive Goldthorp : I find it rather sad that your criticism is based on the fact that I do not see the need to use upper case letters in my name . The misnomer was not a typographical mistake , since a and u are far apart on any qwerty keyboard : it was a substantive one

        • Hi Christopher,

          I wondered whether you might respond to my comment…

          I am, like you, a retired Lawyer and have been responsible for sub-editing the content here on AROnline since joining the Editorial Team back in August 2007.

          Simply put, and in accordance with our house style, we use capitals for the first letters of all christian names and surnames – from that perspective not to do so would be unprofessional. Personally, I find your admission that you omit capitals from your names deliberately when posting here on AROnline hard to reconcile with the standards many would rightly expect from our shared profession…

          Incidentally, having now checked, the ‘c’ and ‘s’ keys are just three and two inches respectively from the ‘Caps Lock’ on my computer’s keyboard.

    • No that was the Sonata, which Hyundai made under license at the same time as they built the Pony.

    • “The omission of any reference to George Turnbull and his colleagues’ roles might be interpreted by some as potential revisionism.”

      With all due respect, the idea that Turnbull and his team “developed” the Pony is a stretch to begin with. In actuality, the truth was much more aligned with Turnbull being tasked with getting an existing vehicle platform into production at an all new facility and coordinating as much local manufacture of parts for it as possible. His team was responsible for tuning and modifying what they saw fit to better suit local conditions.

      The Pony wasn’t just Mitsubishi drive trains; the whole platform itself was licensed as well, and it’s all Lancer A70. Giugiaro did the heavy lifting of restyling to create the appearance of a completely all-new vehicle, but the truth of the matter is a Pony is no different than the following FWD Excel/Pony generation in that it’s really Mitsubishi underneath, the difference being Hyundai was much more vocal about it with the following car as it wasn’t seen as a hindrance to their credibility at that point in time.

      It’s still a remarkable achievement to have gone from no factory to small-scale production in two and a half odd years, but let’s be honest with ourselves here and recognize that nobody started from scratch with the car itself; that was not part of the equation.

      • While nowhere near as oppressive as North Korea, South Korea had an authoritarian government where unions were banned and which probably made setting up a car factory a lot easier than in somewhere like Speke. Also the government in Seoul wanted the country to industrialise- it was still mostly agricultural until the late sixties- and earn money through manufacturing exports. First came products like radios and cheap portable televisions, then heavier industries like shipbuilding and motor vehicles.

    • It did use some Ford suspension components. Hyundai had been assembling MK2 Cortina’s under licence prior to George Turnbull arriving and establishing in-house car production.

  3. I can remember the original Pony, cheaply built, not very good to drive and dated looking, but using Mitsubishi drivetrains meant it was trouble free and the low prices meant there was a market for it. Next came the Stellar, a keenly priced family car with plenty of standard equipment and acceptable driving habits that becmae popular with minicabbers for its ability to take high mileages. Exports of these cars and the later 1300/1500 small family car enabled Hyundai to develop a more modern range of cars that kicked off with the Accent and Lantra.

    • It was because it was a Cortina with a new body, which Hyuandi dealers really pushed as the Sierra was putting people off the Blue Oval.

      • To a point, daveh, but by the time the Stellar was launched over here, the Sierra’s styling had been softened and sales were improving. Also the Stellar was more likely aimed at private buyers and taxi firms than the fleets that mostly bought Sierras. Rather like the Protons of this era, you bought the Stellar because it had trusted Mitsubishi engines, was cheap and had plenty of standard kit.

  4. Hyundai’s US rollout was an absolute disaster. The cars were well received at the cheap end of the market, but soon earned a toxic reputation for shoddiness and unreliability. The brand spent about 20 years rebuilding itself with galactic mileage warranty coverage, easy finance, and low prices.

    • Yes he was in charge of Talbot and oversaw the closure of Linwood and large job losses in Coventry. Turnbull did at least leave Talbot with a coherent range of fwd cars, instead of the Avenger overlapping with the Horizon and Solara, and he did save what was left of the busioess as it was losing money heavily at the start of the eighties. Also he did tighten up rustproofing, a big problem with Talbot products, by offering an industry leading six year anti perforation warranty for cars made from 1982 onwards and introduced a 2% interest deal on new cars that kept Talbot alive. Later on, working for Toyota, Turnbull persuaded the company to build a factory in Derbyshire.

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